(By chris the cynic)
I’m not Christian. I come from a largely Christian culture, my morality can largely be described as Christian, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual leader is Fred Clark at Slacktivist. (I may not believe his religion is correct, but on contemporary matters I have a feeling he’s got a better idea of what God would want than I do.) But I’m not Christian.
Depending on your personal views on religious commentary, that fact may be quite important to you so I figured I’d get it out of the way.
Ok, so, onto the point. We talk about “fundamentalists”, in part probably because the name has been used in the past (TRADITION!) and “fundies” is a fun word. “Fundamentalists” is a known word, it’s an understood word, it’s a word that we’re not likely to change any time in the future. But it is not some magical gateway to truth, and I think that sometimes we forget that.
The word is self chosen (more than 90 years ago) by a certain Christian group, allowing the group to claim that it was the one sticking true to the fundamentals of the faith while others were leaving them behind. It has since been applied to various other groups and taken on a very different meaning. However, the word still contains the original claim. Fundamentalist. They’re the ones with the Fundamentals.
I’ve never known a religious group that didn’t think it was sticking with the fundamentals of their faith. That’s where most religious disagreements take place: what is it that really matters? What is more fundamental? When things conflict or seem to conflict, what does one fall back on? What are, basically, the fundamentals?
Recently I saw someone online using a neat bit of casuistry* that basically went like this:
You’ve just said that these fundamentalists are bad. Fundamentalists follow the fundamentals. If the fundamentals of a thing are bad then the thing is bad. Therefore since these fundamentalists are bad the entire religion is bad.
It wasn’t laid out quite like that (it called back to other places and so forth) but that was basically the argument. Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals. People Who Follow Fundamentals are bad → Thing Itself is bad.
I don’t think many people would quibble with the idea that a thing is bad if its fundamentals are bad. But Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals is unsound reasoning. “Fundamentalists” is just a name. It’s like assuming that everyone named Christopher has Jesus on their back (Christopher means Christ Bearer) and then concluding that Winnie the Pooh is a horrible deception because Christopher Robin isn’t bearing Jesus in it (and isn’t a Robin EITHER!)
Assuming that fundamentalists follow the fundamentals because their name indicates they do is like assuming that anyone with the name Christopher Robin is a Christ carrying bird (of what type varies depending on the type of Robin, but we can at least say a small bird) because that’s what the name Christopher Robin indicates.
Except that’s not what names indicate. Names are identifiers not definitions.
Having the name “Fundamentalist” no more gives you claim to the fundamentals than having the name “King” gives you claim to the throne.
Which brings us to the question of the post. Who determines what the fundamentals actually are? People tend to think they know. People tend to disagree.
Here’s a different question: Why are there so many non-Jewish Christians? Jesus stayed in the Jewish community. He was known to hang out with outsiders and pariahs and such, but they were all fellow Jews. How did all these gentiles get in the religion?
The Bible has an answer. It’s given in the Book of Acts. Jesus has returned to the home office, the disciples are left on earth to fend for themselves. Peter is about to get a request to preach the gospel because someone had a vision saying he should get more info on this new religion from Peter, but the person making the request for Peter to come is a gentile. Peter would say no.
Before the messenger arrives God sends a second vision, this time to Peter. A divine revelation.
And so Peter goes.
He acknowledges that it defies old law, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” That’s New International Version. King James: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” The version that Fred links to (New Revised Standard Version, I think): “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Pick your favorite Bible and look it up: Acts 10:28.
Christianity was never going to get this many believers if it stayed a sub-sect of Judaism. Now the vast majority of Christians are gentiles.
From an outsider’s perspective a divine revelation to one of the apostles which resulted in almost, but not quite, all modern day Christians being Christians seems pretty damn fundamental.
I also get the impression that Fred Clark finds it quite fundamental. He’s got an insider’s perspective.
But I know that not all Christians find this verse fundamental because they do call people profane and unclean.
And so who gets final say? Who do we trust to say either, “This is a fundamental part of Christianity,” or, “Screw it, those people are totally abominations and that’s what’s fundamental”?
I’ve asked the question, but in truth I don’t think there is an answer. Unless all members of a group get together and determine what the fundamentals for membership are, I don’t think we get to say, “Well the fundamentals …”
If outsiders such as myself and the person who made the comment that inspired me to write this post decide what the fundamentals are, we are appointing ourselves more definitive speakers on the subject than –in the case of Christianity– almost, but not quite, 2000 years of both scholars and others who devoted themselves to the matter (including Jesus and those who knew him.)
If outsiders decide the fundamentals of Islam then it is a shorter period, but still about 1400 years and, more importantly, it’s still being an asshole.
For insiders I think it’s up to each person to determine for themselves what the most important parts are. And this goes for much more than just religion. The question of winning or losing vs. how you play the game is one that every sport (see: Chess) has to wrestle with.
* I know it’s not the most common word but sophists get a bad rap (2400 years of smear campaign will do that to a group) and I’d prefer not to be using the pejorative “sophistry”. Especially not while I’m thinking about how one shouldn’t judge a group (especially one whose membership is determined by self identification) by its worst members.